Adding value by drying lumber

Federal funds are helping wood manufacturers buy dry kilns and other equipment to increase their market share

Posted: Tuesday, May 29, 2001

Icy Straits Lumber Co. in Hoonah hopes dry kilns will take its manufacturing operations over a value-added hurdle.

"Right now we sell wood and tell people to make sure they dry it for a couple of weeks inside, under cover," general manager Wes Tyler said.

With federal support, Icy Straits plans to purchase two small dry kilns that will give its products more of an edge in the marketplace. Each kiln should hold about 15,000 board feet of timber, Tyler said.

"It adds value to wood that wouldn't have very good value. We're able to make a lot of products we weren't able to make before. But one of the greatest things is we're going to put more people to work and keep more people at work," he said.

Icy Straits - a division of Whitestone Logging - processes a wood mix of about 70 percent Western hemlock and 30 percent Sitka spruce at its Hoonah sawmill. With the dry kilns, the company will be able to tighten its focus on dimensional lumber, paneling and tongue-and-groove decking for floors.

Whitestone employs about 95 people, with 15 to 20 people employed at the sawmill. Tyler said the company hopes to expand markets in Hoonah, Juneau, Gustavus, Haines and Interior Alaska. In Juneau, company representative Lloyd Anderson began selling Icy Straits' products in April from a lot near Costco.

Icy Straits is one of seven Alaska forest product companies to get federal support to build new dry kilns, planers and lumber-storage facilities. A dry kiln keeps lumber from shrinking and warping and makes wood stronger.

Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, with help from the Alaska Forest Association, secured $2 million last year to open markets and foster value-added manufacturing, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The agency grants range from $53,000 to $700,000, forester Alan Vandiver said.

Grant recipients were selected from a list of 38 applications based on how much money the companies were willing to contribute, how many jobs might be created and how much value could be added to the products, Vandiver said.

"It turned out we funded some moderate-sized mills, some very, very small ones and a mix in between," he said.

The businesses that will receive funding manufacture doors, windows, moldings, hardwood flooring, siding and other products. Kiln drying time depends on the moisture content of the wood.

"Companies realize that wood is going to get harder and harder to get. The further you can stretch the wood you're getting, the better utilization you get out of the resource," Vandiver said.

Rol-An-Door Enterprises in Ketchikan is a small, family-owned business that will use a $80,000 grant to make doors, window casings and trim out of Southeast Alaska wood. The matching funds will be used to purchase a milling machine and a dry kiln with 12,000 board feet capacity, according to Uriah Rolando.

"We'll be able to take rough, wet lumber and dry it, then mold it into the components we need," he said. "It makes it more economical."

The company uses yellow cedar, red cedar, hemlock and spruce and has a small stained glass studio for custom doors, Rolando said. Rol-An-Door hopes to have operations set up by the end of the summer and will market to trade shops and architectural firms in the Pacific Northwest.

Rolando said the company's yellow cedar products are highly rot-resistant.

"We think we have something fairly unique," he said.

In Wasilla, Poppert Milling will use a $205,000 grant to expand markets in Alaska and the Lower 48. The company produces tongue-and-groove flooring, wall paneling and architectural molding, according to production manager Dave Poppert.

The company already operates dry kilns and will use the funding for three new 10,000-board-foot kilns, dry storage and a planer, he said.

"You can't build cabinets out of a green piece of wood. Kiln drying takes the process into a specific time frame of two to three weeks," he said. It might take birch a year to 18 months to air dry, he said.

The bulk of Poppert Milling's wood comes from the Trapper Creek area and the family owned company uses Alaskan birch, cottonwood and spruce.

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council supports efforts to set up dry kilns in the region, grassroots organizer Matthew Davidson said.

"It's a step in the right direction. Anything we can do to add value to trees, through in-state processing or finished projects, is good for the resource and good for the economy," he said.

Other companies slated to receive federal funding are J&J Enterprises in Willow, The Valley Sawmill in Point MacKenzie, Viking Lumber in Klawock and W.R. Jones & Son Lumber Co. in Craig.

Joanna Markell can be reached at

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